What Statements by a New Jersey DWI Defendant Are, and Are Not, Admissible in Court?

Interrogation Room at Alcatraz IslandWhen police detain and question a person on suspicion of driving while intoxicated (DWI), the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution protect that person’s rights. The Fourteenth Amendment officially extended most of the Bill of Rights to state-level law enforcement, meaning that local police are subject to the same constraints as the federal government. In the context of New Jersey DWI cases, the Fourth Amendment states that police cannot detain someone, such as by pulling over their vehicle, without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The Fifth Amendment states that a defendant cannot be forced to testify against themselves, and limits the state’s ability to use certain statements made by defendants against them in court. Exactly when this right against self-incrimination applies has been a matter of ongoing dispute in the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has made several rulings specifically addressing incriminating statements in DWI cases.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the right against self-incrimination during police interrogation is Miranda v. Arizona, decided in 1966. Information obtained by police from a person, after they have invoked their “right to remain silent” during “custodial interrogation,” is inadmissible in court. While people can refuse to answer police questions at almost any time, Miranda obligates police to advise people of their rights in specific scenarios. Many subsequent court decisions have found that Miranda only applies once a person has been formally placed under arrest and read this list of rights. Whether a person is “under arrest” during a traffic stop is a complicated question.

Police do not typically give Miranda warnings to DWI suspects at the beginning of a traffic stop. Still, officers may ask questions of a driver, and ask the driver to perform field sobriety tests. With some exceptions, courts do not consider this to be a “custodial interrogation” within the meaning of Miranda. Police are therefore not obligated to advise people of their Miranda rights at this point, placing the burden of invoking the right against self-incrimination on the driver.

Refusing to answer questions is unlikely to prevent arrest, once an officer has already stopped a vehicle for suspicion of DWI. It might, however, limit the amount of evidence the state can use in court. There would be no admission by the defendant in evidence, for example. In 2012’s State v. Stas, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that prosecutors cannot use a DWI suspect’s silence against them as evidence of guilt. Statements made during breath testing, however, were not made during interrogation, and were therefore admissible, according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Pennsylvania v. Muniz in 1990.

An important distinction to keep in mind is that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination only applies to “testimonial evidence,” or evidence that an individual produces based on their own knowledge. Breath testing is not considered “testimonial,” and therefore is not covered by the rights outlined in Miranda. This is how New Jersey and other states can make it mandatory to submit to breath testing. The U.S. Supreme Court also held, in 1983’s South Dakota v. Neville, that a defendant’s refusal to submit to breath testing is itself admissible as evidence in a DWI trial.

If you have been charged with alleged DWI in New Jersey, DWI lawyer Evan Levow can help you understand your rights, guide you through the court process, and prepare the best possible defense for your case. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how our team can help you, please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Appellate Court Considers DWI Defendant’s “Confusion” Defense, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, August 16, 2016

The Fifth Amendment Privilege Against Self-Incrimination in New Jersey DWI Cases, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, September 30, 2015

Court Rules on Right Against Self-Incrimination, Right to Jury Trial in New Jersey DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 27, 2015

Photo credit: Andreas Wulff [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr.